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After freedom, joy of seeing streets & faces

- Captain of ship stuck off Dubai heads home

Captain Aninda Sengupta, the Calcuttan in command of the ship stranded off the Dubai coast for a year, set foot on shore on Wednesday night after 201 days of “living like a hostage”.

The 53-year-old, whose plight Metro had highlighted on June 27 (see picture), was able to leave the LPG vessel along with six other sailors after the shipping company that owns it sent replacements to relieve them.

“It was great to see unknown but new faces on the street. Moving cars, shops…we have not seen them for more than six months,” Sengupta told Metro from a hotel in Dubai on Thursday afternoon before heading for the airport to catch a midnight flight to Mumbai.

The veteran sailor is expected to reach Visakhapatnam, where his wife works as a teacher, on Friday. He had left home for Dubai on November 23 last year and boarded Maharshi Devatreya, anchored 12 nautical miles off Port Rashid, the next day.

Sengupta’s four-month contract ended in March but he was forced to stay on — and that too without pay — because international shipping rules forbid a seafarer from deserting a ship except in 16 specific distress situations. The ship had been stuck there because the company that owns it, Varun Shipping, had failed to renew its sailing certificate.

Eight more crew members, including three trainees, are still stuck aboard the ship. The owner has promised to take the vessel to a dry dock within the next fortnight for an inspection and, if necessary, repairs. This procedure is critical to getting a sailing certificate from London-based Lloyd’s Register.

Maharshi Devatreya’s certificate expired on December 29, 2013. The ship hasn’t moved from where it is anchored since July last year.

“We had been seeking replacements for long, which they promised to send but didn’t until this week. When we got to know that five sailors were coming to sign us off, we didn’t believe it at first. However, there was a glimmer of hope this time, thanks to media coverage,” Sengupta said.

The Calcutta-born and Nagpur-raised sailor, who specialises in helming tankers, didn’t rejoice until the boat carrying the sailors who would replace them arrived on Wednesday afternoon. “There was a quiet celebration later. Some of us had been on this ship for almost a year, after all,” he said.

The departing crew took the same boat back to shore and reached Dubai shortly before midnight.

So did the sailors uncork the bubbly after checking in at the hotel? “It is Ramazan month, so the restaurants all close early. We ate at the hotel. I don’t know if any of us had a quiet celebration in his room,” Sengupta said.

The captain did some shopping on Thursday but said he was careful not to splurge since the shipping company hasn’t yet paid him his salary.

In Visakhapatnam, Sengupta’s wife Nandini was delighted to hear that her husband would be back home soon but said her heart went out to those still on the ship. “I am happy he is returning home but the question of a celebration did not come to mind considering some people are still fighting out there,” she said over the phone.

For Sengupta, a new battle starts soon. He intends to do everything possible to get Varun Shipping to pay him and the other sailors their pending salaries.

Sources said the Maritime Union of India had taken up the salary impasse with the International Workers’ Federation, the director general of shipping and Cyprus embassy in New Delhi since Maharshi Devatreya is registered in that country.